Dear Aunt Fattie,
I am starting law school in August. I am excited about school and my career plans. I did notice a problem when I was touring the school, however. All of the classroom seats are at long tables with chairs attached to the table supports. The chairs have no legs of their own, they just swing out from the tables. I’m a large woman and I could barely wedge myself into a seat during the school tour. By the time the tour’s mock class was finished, I thought I was going to faint.
I don’t know how I am going to survive day after day in class with those chairs. I am sure that the school would provide an alternative to a student in a wheelchair. Can I ask for something similar, and how would I ask without embarrassing myself and the school?
Aunt Fattie is an agony aunt, not an administration aunt, so she forwarded your query to a friend who is an expert in college administrative rules and regulations: the wonderful Lesley of Fatshionista. Lesley suggests that you think of this as a matter of accessibility, not just a matter of fat: “There are lots of reasons why some bodies need easy-access chairs, and being fat is just one of them.” You avoid embarrassing yourself by realizing that you have nothing to be embarrassed about: you are making a perfectly reasonable request, reasonable not only for you but for many other people in many other bodies. Of course fat is a fraught issue, and even those of us who love and accept it can find it awkward to relate to other people in a way that highlights our fat, knowing what their sentiments might be. This post on Fatshionista perfectly sums up the experience. But you are not asking the school to praise your fat, to understand your fat, or to support your fat — all of which can be time-consuming, difficult, and intimate journeys. You are asking only that they accommodate your fat. This is their job.
Lesley suggests that you start by having a conversation with an understanding instructor; they may not have considered space issues in the seating, and should be interested in helping. If your instructors seem more distant or unhelpful, or if you simply haven’t had time to get to know them, Lesley suggests that “a conversation with the school’s disability services department may be in order. If it’s something as simple as making sure there’s an armless chair (or two or three — the person asking should also keep in mind that other folks might take an armless chair for their own reasons if one is made available, and she may have to willing to call dibs), they should certainly be able to make that happen. Also, once the student has established a relationship with this office, she can ask that accommodation be made for ALL her classes.”
At first blush, it may appear somewhat unfortunate that asking for help from the disability services department seems to cast fat as a disability. Because disability still has negative cultural associations, some fat activists bristle when fat is considered a disability — it’s rhetorically counterproductive, when you’re trying to argue that fat people are in no way hindered by their adipose tissue. But, like other so-called disabilities, your fat is a disability here only in context of what you’re being asked to do. In and of itself, it is not a problem, but in a context where you are being asked to squeeze into a tiny seat, it is. As with other physical and cognitive differences, the disability services department exists only to minimize the discrepancy between what you can do and what you’re being asked to do — not, thank goodness, to arbitrate whether your particular idiosyncrasies are desirable or not. Lesley warns, though, that “the helpfulness and effectiveness of disability services can vary dramatically by school, so your mileage may vary.”
Lesley agrees that embarrassing the school is probably best avoided, not to mention unlikely to be effective: “When I was a grad student facing horrible seating — before I knew I could even ASK for accommodation — I would either hijack a chair from another classroom, or sit on the floor. Admittedly, I expect law school is probably less understanding of an angry fat girl sitting on the floor in protest of painful seating than my program was.” Luckily, you know that you can ask for accommodation, and that this asking should embarrass no one. The school does not want you sitting in a seat that will endanger your health and your ability to learn; quite aside from compassion, there’s the matter of liability. It is in their interest to improve your access, so it is certainly in your best interest to ask.
If you’ve got your own questions on fat, fatshion, fatiquette, self-esteem, or body image, send them to firstname.lastname@example.org.